When Brian Eno first beeped across my radar screen, it was as the other-worldly, boa-draped synthesizer player in Roxy Music. By the time I caught on, he had already left the band and was putting out his own albums of strange, catchy little songs. Then he had his own record label, Obscure, which presented the music of some very interesting composers whose music was obscure then, like Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman and John Adams.
One of the first Obscure releases featured two of Eno’s non-pop compositions, Discreet Music and Variations on the Canon in D by Johan Pachelbel. The latter was a modular deconstruction of the familiar Baroque hit, gradually separating and slowing the strands until it reached a kind of static ecstasy. In method, it was strikingly similar to Steve Reich’s near-contemporaneous Four Organs. The former was a tape-driven piece, in which long loops of isolated events played independently, like planets in their separate orbits, creating a placid semi-indeterminate soundscape that, in theory, could go on forever.
For me and my music friends the effect of all this was like a smooth stone falling from the sky into the middle of our collective pond. Like Eno himself, the music was cool and soft-spoken yet teeming with ideas of the sort that instantly suggested the generation of more pieces and ideas. The only composer I can think of whose work has similar potency is John Cage. Suddenly we were all thinking that our tape decks were musical tools, that the recording studio was a musical instrument, that process was more important than virtuosity and that accident and chance could be vital parts of that process. It seemed as if we had been invited into the future to make music, and to make it together.
Collaborations were of course central to Eno’s world. He participated in Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning and wielded a clarinet in the legendary Portsmouth Sinfonia, the orchestra whose members were not allowed to be familiar with the instrument they played. He made live loops alongside King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and created his long loop masterpiece, Music for Airports, with Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt. Later, he would make epic work with Harold Budd and Jon Hassell, David Byrne and David Bowie, not to mention producing a half dozen U2 albums.
It sometimes occurs to me that Eno’s solo records and installations of the last few decades, while beautiful, have mainly covered, reexamined and refined the same ground that his early work discovered. But then I catch myself and think: having invented the future, shouldn’t he be allowed to live in it?
Brian Eno on media and his music:
Bang on a Can performs Eno's Music for Airports: